By Marion Filler
On a sun-drenched afternoon, with flags rippling in a gentle breeze, a crowd gathered on the Morris County Courthouse lawn on Wednesday to honor the living and dead who have served this country.
The haunting sound of Amazing Grace on bagpipes and a slow, emotional rendering of Taps by Larry Schillings was countered by happy children from Lakeview School in Denville singing the National Anthem.
Before the Morris County Freeholders awarded medals to seven veterans, Communications Director Larry Ragonese remembered Seaman 1st Class John Matthew Konesney, a Whippany resident whose ship was sunk in 1945 and located just two years ago, deep in the Philippine Sea.
Konesy was one of the 1.1 million men and women who have died in wars fought by the United States.
What can one say to a family who has lost a loved one? The featured speaker at this Memorial Day preview, Morris County American Legion Commander Amery Vasso, quoted a famous letter from President Lincoln to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, who lost five sons in the Civil War. The letter was supposed to have inspired the film Saving Private Ryan.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
Retired Morris County Public Information Director Joe Garifo then introduced the medalists, each of whom had a lengthy list of awards and achievements.
Carlos Gonzalez, who grew up in Dover, was unable to attend. A member of the Army National Guard, he was deployed to Iraq and took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He returned to pursue a degree in criminal justice at the County College of Morris.
Victor Camaya of Montville is the son of Philippine immigrants, but says “New Jersey has always been home.” A graduate of West Point with a degree in Electrical Engineering, he served in Kosovo and Iraq, joined the FBI, and participated in investigating and prosecuting the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Bengazi. A Bronze Star is just one of his many awards.
Kevin Nealon of Flanders was deployed to Vietnam in from 1967-1971, then served in the Reserves until 1976. His awards include a Bronze Star and medals for marksmanship. He worked for Mennen/Colgate-Palmolive for 47 years, and volunteered with the Dover Fire Department for 17 years.
Glenn McGuill of Morristown enlisted in 1967 and was sent to Vietnam the following year. He drove a convoy truck through the dangerous Central Highlands. Among his many honors are a Purple Heart, a Vietnam Campaign medal and the National Service Defense Medal.
Michael O’Neill of Schooley’s Mountain was assigned to a remote combat outpost in Afghanistan from 2011-2012 and tasked with keeping the supply lines open – he and his team did, despite daily attacks. Upon returning to the U.S., he joined the “Fighting 69th” National Guard of New York City and conducted training sessions with the unit around the country and internationally. He now serves on the Millburn Police department, where he has earned three awards for valor.
Linda Burns Orth tearfully accepted the award for her deceased husband, George Orth, who joined the Navy in 1995 and served in the Arabian Gulf and Iraq. After a break in service, he re-enlisted in 2002 and led his team to become experts at repairing Black Hawk helicopters. Orth sustained injuries in 2009, which contributed to his passing in 2018.
Elsie Maas of Mt. Arlington joined the Navy a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was sent to Hunter College in New York City for Basic Training, then was assigned as bookkeeper to the Naval Commissioner in Washington D.C. for the duration of the World War II. Returning to New Jersey in 1946, she started a family that now includes three daughters, five grandchildren, and seven great-great-grandchildren. Many of them attended the Morristown ceremony, and helped Maas navigate the lawn with her walker. At age 95, she remains an avid reader interested in politics. Mass is “just terrific,” according to her granddaughter.
Dignitaries at Wednesday’s event included state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.), Morris Sheriff James Gannon, Morris Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, Morris Plains Mayor Jason Kaar and former Mayor Frank Druetzler, and Superior Court Assignment Judge Stuart Minkowitz, who led the Pledge of Allegiance.
Maas, the World War II veteran, summed up the day succinctly.
“I am proud to be a citizen of the United States” she said.